Portugal’s humanistic and pragmatic approach to drug use

Der Spiegel reports: Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he’s taken lately — the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world’s largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal’s Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.

“We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control,” Goulão explains. “Criminalization certainly wasn’t working all that well.”

As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal — “Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN,” Goulão explains — but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation. [Continue reading...]

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The neighbors most of America chooses to ignore

There is a sense in which America conjures a metaphysical absolute space — a space in which an infinite distance separates this country from everything and everyone outside its borders.

Ciudad Juárez — which is literally a stone’s throw from El Paso in Texas — could be as far away as North Waziristan.

So long as fences — both physical and cognitive — can be raised high enough, no one need concern themselves with what happens on the outside.

Jeremy Relph writes: The interior of the school bus is awash in blue light, lumbering through the Villa Esperanza neighborhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on a chilly November evening. Tinny rap music in Spanish plays on a cell phone. The kids ride the bus in their uniforms: white polo shirts with green collars and khakis. The guys favor lots of gel; the girls, ponytails. Most students will have walked home from school in the dark, which is often when things go wrong. We are in Km 29, which is Artistas Asesinos territory, a street gang aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel.

The bus leaves the paved highway and rumbles over hard dirt roads in the desert. It’s a slow ride. A girl gets off the bus and picks her way over the uneven dirt beside the road. The bus driver turns off the lights, plunging the landscape into darkness but for the glow of Juárez. When he turns the lights back on, she is running.

You accept the evil here in faith. Faith, after all, is belief in the unseen. It’s the opposite of hope but the same muscle. You don’t see it, but you know it’s there. We eat tacos al pastor later that evening, back in the city. We hear war stories. A friend mimics the bang bang of shooting, making a rifle with his hands. A patron behind me, waiting for his takeout, wears a gun on his hip. The restaurant is half full, and our waiter becomes inattentive, hurrying to another table. Our friend realizes that seated at the table behind us are members of a local cartel comprising dirty cops, La Linea. The patron waiting on his takeout is a state cop. In the Juárez of yesterday, this might have lead to a restaurant littered with dead bodies. Cuidad Juárez is changing.

The drug war in Juárez saw some 10,000 men, women, and children die since 2007 — 359 homicides reported in October 2010 alone — a disproportionate chunk of the nearly 60,000 reported for the rest of the country. At stake: access to the American market, worth close to $40 billion. That money, and the violence that inevitably comes with it, moves beyond class boundaries — society itself fell apart over the past six years here. Extreme violence became totally normal, a fact of everyday life.

Throughout the war, cartels actively recruited young people. Teenagers — Los Ninis (ni estudian ni trabajan, neither work nor study) — were the most vulnerable, some drawn to quick money and status. And now it’s considered done. Some credit could go to former President Felipe Calderón’s Todos Somos Juárez’s program (We Are All Juárez), introduced in 2010. The federal government invested $263 million in 2010 and $138 in 2011. Security ate up 18% of the money, the rest being pushed to other areas like health, education, and social development. The results, on paper, are impressive, though flawed. Some feel the cessation of violence has more to do with the Sinaloa cartel winning the war or the combatants merely taking a breather. Regardless, as of last year, Juárez is no longer the world’s murder capital, a distinction passed on to San Pedro Sula, Honduras; now it’s No. 19.

Juárez struggles to provide for its 1.5 million residents, and nowhere will its failings be more evident in the future than in schools and the next generation of young people, who came of age during the drug wars and don’t know much else. The system meant to look out for them is broken, but, amazingly, they — and the adults charged with looking after them — are not. [Continue reading...]

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Global support grows for legalizing drugs

Der Spiegel reports: The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives — but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization. Following the journey of cocaine from a farm in Colombia to a user in Berlin sheds light on why.

“Pablo Escobar said to me: ‘One shot to the head isn’t enough. It has to be two shots, just above the eyes.’”

Jhon Velásquez, nicknamed “Popeye,” is sitting on a white plastic chair in the prison yard. “You can survive one shot, but never two. I cut up the bodies and threw them in the river. Or I just left them there. I often drove through Medellín, where I kidnapped and raped women. Then I shot them and threw them in the trash.”

Three guards are standing next to him. He is the only prisoner in the giant building. The watchtower, the security door systems, the surveillance cameras — it’s all for him. The warden of the Cómbita maximum-security prison, a three-hour drive northeast of the Colombian capital Bogotá, has given Popeye one hour to tell his story.

The experience is like opening a door into hell.

Popeye was the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia’s Medellín cartel. Until his death in 1993, Escobar was the most powerful drug lord in the world. He industrialized cocaine production, controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and became one of the richest people on the planet. The cartel ordered the killings of 30 judges, about 450 police officers and many more civilians. As Escobar’s head of security, Popeye was an expert at kidnapping, torture and murder.

Velásquez acquired the nickname Popeye while working as a cabin boy in the Colombian navy. He kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, the then-candidate for mayor of Bogotá and later president. He obtained the weapon that was used to fatally shoot Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. He was involved in a bombing attack that was intended to kill former Colombian President César Gaviria. Popeye, acting on the orders of Escobar, El Patrón, even had his beauty-queen girlfriend Wendy murdered.

“I’ve killed about 250 people, and I cut many of them into pieces. But I don’t know exactly how many,” Popeye says. “Only psychopaths count their kills.”

Popeye is a pale, 50-year-old man with a shrill voice — a psychopath who doesn’t count his kills.

The longer Popeye talks — about his murders, the drug war and the havoc he and Escobar wreaked and that is currently being repeated in Mexico — the less important my prepared questions about this war become. I realize that I might as well throw away my notepad, because it all boils down to one question: How can we stop people like you, Popeye?

He pauses for a moment before saying: “People like me can’t be stopped. It’s a war. They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you’ll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don’t know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I’ve been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to me made. Never.”

I’m sitting face to face with a killer: Popeye, an evil product of hell. And I’m afraid that the killer could be right.

The drug war is the longest war in recent history, underway for more than 40 years. It is a never-ending struggle against a $500 billion (€378 billion) industry. [Continue reading...]

See infographic on the U.S. failed war on drugs. [Read more...]

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Obama faces Latin America revolt over drugs, trade

Reuters reports: President Barack Obama will face an unprecedented revolt by Latin American countries against the U.S.-led drug war during his second term and he also may struggle to pass new trade deals as the region once known as “America’s backyard” flexes its muscles like never before.

Washington’s ability to influence events in Latin America has arguably never been lower. The new reality is as much a product of the United States’ economic struggles as a wave of democracy and greater prosperity that has swept much of the region of 580 million people in the past decade or so.

It’s not that the United States is reviled now – far from it. Although a few vocally anti-U.S. leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez tend to grab the media spotlight, Obama has warm or cordial relations with Brazil, Mexico and other big countries in the region.

Most Latin American leaders were rooting, either privately or publicly, for his re-election on Tuesday.

That said, even close allies are increasingly emboldened to act without worrying about what “Tio Sam” will say or do. Nowhere is that more evident than on anti-narcotics policy. [Continue reading...]

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The war we aren’t debating

Michael Massing writes: It’s a social policy that, many experts agree, has failed miserably since it was introduced more than forty years ago, tearing apart families and communities across the United States, consuming tens of thousands of lives abroad, and squandering huge sums of money. Yet hardly any national politician is willing to challenge it, and it’s been completely ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign.

I’m speaking of the war on drugs. Since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and stated his intention of waging a “new, all-out offensive” against it, the government has spent an estimated trillion dollars on the war. Much of that money has gone to street-level drug arrests, undercover raids, intelligence taskforces, highway patrols, and—most costly of all—prison beds. Of the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States today, nearly half a million are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, nonviolent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations—80 percent of them for possession.

In Latin America, the war on drugs has sown misery across a vast swath of territory stretching from the coca fields of Peru to Mexico’s border with the United States. Billions have been spent on crop eradication, commando units, military training, unmanned surveillance drones, and helicopters. The result has been endless bloodshed, widespread corruption, and political instability. In Mexico alone, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the nearly six years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón (encouraged by Washington) declared war on his nation’s drug cartels. One result of the crackdown has been to push traffickers into Central America, where they now terrorize Guatemalans and Hondurans. All the while, drugs continue to flow unabated into the United States. In 1981, a pure gram of cocaine cost $669 (adjusted for inflation); today, it goes for $177.

As for consumption, cocaine use has decreased considerably since its peak in the mid-1980s, and methamphetamine use has also subsided after a destructive surge in the 2000s. But the abuse of prescription drugs, especially of opioid painkillers, has grown to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “epidemic” levels, and the number of accidental overdose deaths from such substances has soared. This spurt underscores that the real source of our drug problem lies not in Mexico or Colombia but inside our own borders, and that arresting and locking up users is a singularly ineffective way of addressing it. [Continue reading...]

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The disposable pawns of the American criminal-justice system

Sarah Stillman reports: On the evening of May 7, 2008, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Rachel Hoffman got into her silver Volvo sedan, put on calming jam-band music, and headed north to a public park in Tallahassee, Florida. A recent graduate of Florida State, she was dressed to blend into a crowd—bluejeans, green-and-white patterned T-shirt, black Reef flip-flops. On the passenger seat beside her was a handbag that contained thirteen thousand dollars in marked bills.

Before she reached the Georgia-peach stands and Tupelo-honey venders on North Meridian Road, she texted her boyfriend. “I just got wired up,” she wrote at 6:34 P.M. “Wish me luck I’m on my way.”

“Good luck babe!” he replied. “Call me and let me know what’s up.”

“It’s about to go down,” she texted back.

Behind the park’s oaks and blooming crape myrtles, the sun was beginning to set. Young mothers were pushing strollers near the baseball diamonds; kids were running amok on the playground. As Hoffman spoke on her iPhone to the man she was on her way to meet, her voice was filtered through a wire that was hidden in her purse. “I’m pulling into the park with the tennis courts now,” she said, sounding casual.

Perhaps what put her at ease was the knowledge that nineteen law-enforcement agents were tracking her every move, and that a Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance plane was circling overhead. In any case, Rachel Hoffman, a tall, wide-eyed redhead, was by nature laid-back and trusting. She was not a trained narcotics operative. On her Facebook page you could see her dancing at music festivals with a big, goofy smile, and the faux profile she’d made for her cat (“Favorite music: cat stevens, straycat blues, pussycat dolls”).

A few weeks earlier, police officers had arrived at her apartment after someone complained about the smell of marijuana and voiced suspicion that she was selling drugs. When they asked if she had any illegal substances inside, Hoffman said yes and allowed them in to search. The cops seized slightly more than five ounces of pot and several Ecstasy and Valium pills, tucked beneath the cushions of her couch. Hoffman could face serious prison time for felony charges, including “possession of cannabis with intent to sell” and “maintaining a drug house.” The officer in charge, a sandy-haired vice cop named Ryan Pender, told her that she might be able to help herself if she provided “substantial assistance” to the city’s narcotics team. She believed that any charges against her could be reduced, or even dropped.

Hoffman’s legal worries were augmented by the fact that this wasn’t her first drug offense. A year earlier, while she was a senior, police pulled her over for speeding and found almost an ounce of marijuana in her car. She was ordered into a substance-abuse program, which required regular drug testing. Later, after failing to report for a test, she spent three days in jail.

Hoffman chose to coöperate. She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.

The operation did not go as intended. By the end of the hour, police lost track of her and her car. Late that night, they arrived at her boyfriend’s town house and asked him if Hoffman was inside. They wanted to know if she might have run off with the money. Her boyfriend didn’t know where she was.

“She was with us,” he recalled an officer saying. “Until shit got crazy.”

Two days after Hoffman disappeared, her body was found in Perry, Florida, a small town some fifty miles southeast of Tallahassee, in a ravine overgrown with tangled vines. Draped in an improvised shroud made from her Grateful Dead sweatshirt and an orange-and-purple sleeping bag, Hoffman had been shot five times in the chest and head with the gun that the police had sent her to buy.

By the evening of her death, Rachel Hoffman had been working for the police department for almost three weeks. In bureaucratic terms, she was Confidential Informant No. 1129, or C.I. Hoffman. In legal parlance, she was a “coöperator,” one of thousands of people who, each year, help the police build cases against others, often in exchange for a promise of leniency in the criminal-justice system.

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. [Continue reading...]

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Video: Swiss president on the failure of the war on drugs

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The Pentagon’s addiction to failed wars

From a national security perspective, failure in war is war with no victory or tangible accomplishments.

From the commercial perspective of the military-industrial complex however, what has turned into the hidden success of the American way of war is that it can be made never-ending. In other words, failure in war has become the Pentagon’s bread and butter.

With U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq, a significantly reduced military presence in Afghanistan not far away and a gradual winding down of the war on terror likely, the Pentagon needs new reasons to justify its bloated budget.

At a time when political leaders in Central and South America have become increasingly critical of the United States’ war on drugs, the Pentagon wants to put out a different message — one that the New York Times, as a government-sanctioned information service, is only too happy to deliver.

In Honduras, where the grimmest social service is on offer — free caskets and funerals for the poor who are getting murdered almost once an hour — the Pentagon’s happy message is that it can help this drug-violence afflicted nation through lessons learned in Iraq and the war on terror.

The Pentagon, delivering its message through a reliable Times “reporter”, is that an expanding U.S. military presence in Central America should not be seen as expanding because it employs “small-footprint missions.” And it shouldn’t be perceived as a military engagement because Americans are not doing the shooting.

Honduras is the latest focal point in America’s drug war. As Mexico puts the squeeze on narcotics barons using its territory as a transit hub, more than 90 percent of the cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela bound for the United States passes through Central America. More than a third of those narcotics make their way through Honduras, a country with vast ungoverned areas — and one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.

This new offensive, emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is moving to confront emerging threats, also showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests.

The effort draws on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, where troops were moved from giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.

But the mission here has been adapted to strict rules of engagement prohibiting American combat in Central America, a delicate issue given Washington’s messy history in Honduras, which was the base for the secret operation once run by Oliver North to funnel money and arms to rebels fighting in neighboring Nicaragua. Some skeptics still worry that the American military might accidentally empower thuggish elements of local security forces.

While there is increasing skepticism that law enforcement backed up with military muscle can ever thwart a drug trade that is driven by American drug consumption, the Pentagon counters that fighting drug cartels is just like fighting terrorism. Indeed, deploying the rhetorical tactic that anything can be justified if it can be presented as a form of counter-terrorism, the war on drugs is now being framed as an integral part of the war on terror.

“The drug demand in the United States certainly exacerbates challenges placed upon our neighboring countries fighting against these organizations — and why it is so important that we partner with them in their countering efforts,” said Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, the No. 2 officer at Southern Command, which is responsible for military activities in Central and South America.

Before this assignment, Admiral Kernan spent years in Navy SEAL combat units, and he sees the effort to combat drug cartels as necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere.

There are “insidious” parallels between regional criminal organizations and terror networks, Admiral Kernan said. “They operate without regard to borders,” he said, in order to smuggle drugs, people, weapons and money.

Of course there is also one very large and powerful state that has a habit of operating without regard to borders.

One word that gets no mention in the New York Times article is decriminalization. It’s a subject that several Latin American presidents have said needs to be debated.

The war on drugs has been no more successful than prohibition, but whereas prohibition was abandoned after just 13 years, the war on drugs is now in its fifth decade. The United States doesn’t need to merely stop using the phrase “war on drugs” — it needs to end the mindset that led to a war on drugs.

Any politician willing to take on that challenge will also have to take on a serious fight against those who are profiting from this war: the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and multiple U.S. government agencies.

After the recent Summit of the Americas conference in Columbia, Amy Goodman hosted a discussion on the issues on Democracy Now!

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Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror

In a review of Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle’s new book, Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia, Daniel Kovalik writes:

The premise of the book is that, despite the U.S. claims that it is engaged in a war against drugs in Colombia, it is in fact engaged in an anti-insurgency war against the left-wing FARC guerillas – a war which does not seek to eradicate coca growing and cocaine production in Colombia at all.

Rather, the U.S. war effort (which has cost U.S. taxpayers over $7 billion since 2000) is designed to ensure that the allies of the U.S. in Colombia — that is, the Colombian state, paramilitaries and wealthy elite who are favorable to U.S. business interests and to the U.S.’s desire for exploitation of Colombia’s vast resources — are themselves able to monopolize the drug trade so critical to their survival.

This thesis is well expressed in the Forward by Peter Dale Scott:

The CIA can (and does) point to its role in the arrest or elimination of a number of major Colombian traffickers. These arrests have not diminished the actual flow of cocaine into the United States, which on the contrary reached a new high in 2000. But they have institutionalized the relationship of law enforcement to rival cartels and visibly contributed to the increase of urban cartel violence. The true purpose of most of these campaigns, like the current Plan Colombia, has not been the hopeless ideal of eradication. It has been to alter market share: to target specific enemies and thus ensure that the drug traffic remains under the control of those traffickers who are allies of the Colombian state security apparatus and/or the CIA. This confirms the judgment of Senate investigator Jack Blum a decade ago, that America, instead of battling a narcotics conspiracy, has in a subtle way . . . become part of the conspiracy.

These may seem like wild claims at first blush, but the authors put this in context by reminding the reader of the history of U.S. war efforts since World War II, many of which have been financed, at least in part, through alliances with drug traffickers. The litany of this is a long one, with the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) forming a strategic alliance with the Sicilian and Corsican mafia after World War II to prevent possible communist uprisings in Europe and to smash left-wing unions; the CIA’s assisting the Kuomintang with its opium trafficking operations to fund their joint anti-communist efforts in Asia; the CIA’s actual trafficking of opium out of Laos, Burma and Thailand to help fund the U.S. counter-insurgency effort in South East Asia; the CIA’s support of “the chief smugglers of Afghan opium, the anti-communist Mujahedin rebels in Afghanistan” in their efforts against the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, leading ultimately to Afghanistan becoming one of the largest opium suppliers in the world (a status only briefly interrupted when it was under Taliban control); and the Reagan Administration’s funding the Nicaraguan Contras (after such funding was outlawed by Congress) by, among other things, cocaine smuggling operations.

The book quotes the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) which concludes that, today, “the biggest heroin and cocaine trading institutions in the world are the militaries of Burma, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru and Colombia – ‘all armed and trained by U.S. military intelligence in the name of anti-drug efforts.’” In the case of Colombia, while the U.S., to justify its massive counterinsurgency program, vilifies the FARC guerillas as “narco-terrorists,” this title is more befitting of the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies.

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Video: Counting the Cost — The cost of the ‘war on drugs’

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The U.S. war on drug cartels in Mexico is a deadly failure

Mark Karlin writes: On March 29, 2012, William R. Brownfield, US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (in other words, Hillary Clinton’s point person on drug issues), testified before the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. His subject was the war on drugs in the Western Hemisphere outside of the United States and Canada. Few, if any, reporters from the US press attended.

Approximately 50,000 or more Mexicans have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a so-called war on drug cartels. (In a recent appearance in Toronto, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed 150,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, but the timeline Panetta was referring to was unclear, as was the origin of the figure he cited.) Given that five Juarez police officers were gunned down at a party the night before Brownfield’s testimony, the Spanish-language press, unlike the American media, took an interest in his remarks.

You see, Juarez is kind of a sore spot for Mexicans. In 2010, more than 3,000 homicides took place in the city where killings are committed with general impunity, making it the murder capital of the world that year. Although Juarez’s murder rate has now lowered slightly, the city’s mayor – who lives across the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas – indignantly denies that Juarez is the deadliest city on earth, even though it almost certainly remains close to being just that. Borderland writer Charles Bowden writes in “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields“: “The violence is everywhere. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself.” [Continue reading...]

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